Pakistan's young batsmen need a guiding hand
It is cloudy. There is swing. Australia are the opponents. You are making your debut at Lord's. The emotions, the thoughts, the nerves, the expectations: all these factors would've crossed the minds of Azhar Ali and Umar Amin as they stirred themselves up before walking on to the billiards-table flat green turf on debut.
Like lambs to be slaughtered they were slotted in at No. 3 and 4 - two spots usually reserved for the best batsmen in the team. But let's forget the logic behind the decision because Pakistan cricket has never believed in that notion. In the weeks leading up to the Test series the Pakistan management stressed that they were ready to turn a new page and would be focused on grooming young talent even if it the plan seemed too risky. In keeping with that policy, both Azhar and Amin had received strong backing from Waqar Younis and Shahid Afridi.
Today, it did not take long for Azhar to walk in as a fraught temperament accounted for Imran Farhat's. Azhar, not a natural top-order batsman, had climbed through the ranks with his impressive performances in domestic cricket. He started with a steady pulse. It was not a bad ploy considering the ball was only six overs old and Ben Hilfenhaus was constantly breathing down the batsmen's neck with testing swing and seam bowling from the Pavilion End.
Azhar did well to read both Hilfenhaus and Doug Bollinger without rushing into his shots. He preferred to wait patiently before negotiating everything that was thrown at him with soft hands. When Hilfenhaus gave him width he quickly pushed it past point for his first boundary. Two balls later, the Australian pitched it full and the ball moved out late, taking the outside edge which fell a few yards in front of the slip cordon. Azhar punched his thigh pad a few times in disgust. Immediately Salman Butt whispered some wisdom into his ears . It helped the newcomer to settle down quickly. Bollinger tested him with a short ball that climbed into the ribs but Azhar played with short hands to fetch an easy four to fine leg.
But he would learn immediately why Australian bowling attacks keep asking tougher questions than MI5 interrogators. Hilfenhaus sensed Azhar was reaching out for his shot. Lunch was an over away. Not a bad time for a teaser then. So the last ball of the penultimate over, Hilfenhaus moved one away which grazed Azhar's edge and a promising start was cut short.
In comparison Amin's exit was quick as he was beaten by a sharp delivery from Mitchell Johnson that pitched on a length, straightened a touch and still managed to graze the bat on its way into the hands of Tim Paine. Tough luck and Australia didn't need to work hard to get rid of the next three batsmen. The Akmal brothers - Umar and Kamran - displayed shoddy technique to exit but more alarming was Afridi's shockingly frail temperament, unfitting for a Test captain.
Even if Afridi was playing his first Test in four years he is not an ideal example for youngsters to follow. His suicidal approach eventually reeks of irresponsibility. It is this casual attitude of the seniors that has compounded Pakistan's batting worries over the years. Unfortunately for the youngsters like Azhar and Amin, and even Umar Akmal, the Pakistan batting doesn't have any senior figures to look up to or learn from. The men who could have led by example, the two Ys, Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan, are nursing bitterness towards the PCB, who dumped them unceremoniously after Pakistan lost every match in Australia earlier this year.
Outside the famous stands around Lord's players who achieved illustrious feats at the venue are displayed prominently. Among the names is Yousuf for recording the highest score (202) by a Pakistan batsman at the ground. He is absent from the present squad following his abrupt decision to retire from international cricket in March after the PCB banned him for an indefinite period for the debacle in Australia where he was captain. Younis Khan, their highest run-getter this decade behind Yousuf, is absent as well with the PCB and the player unwilling to relent from the stand-off as a result of the indefinite ban. Pakistan will continue to feel the pinch in the duo's absence.
Last time they toured England they lost the series, but at least Younis, Yousuf and Inzamam-ul-Haq formed a backbone. If the Pakistan administration and selectors are indeed serious about developing youngsters they will need to develop their confidence first. For that a long rope is necessary. Azhar and Amin were preferred over the more experienced pair of Shoaib Malik and Yasir Hameed in this Test. The youngsters might work harder the next time to protect their wicket to ward off competition, but they need a helping hand from responsible seniors. Brilliant spells late in the day from their skilled and gifted fast bowlers kept Pakistan's hopes alive at Lord's. But it is the batsmen who will need to bounce back to take them past the finishing line. Not just in this Test, but for the rest of the summer.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo